Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: Hulk vs. Spider-Man


Hasslein Blog

Monday, March 23, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: Hulk vs. Spider-Man

By Matthew Sunrich

During the early 1960s, when it was a tiny, struggling publisher, Marvel took strides to distinguish itself from DC.

While DC had a "clean" (and, frankly, bland) house style, Marvel took a different approach, opting for more dynamic character designs—often at the expense of accurate anatomy—and more daring action sequences. The higher-ups at DC found Marvel's comics to be crude and amateurish, never envisioning them as threat to their #1 position in the industry.

It's certainly true that DC, unlike most other comic companies, had successfully weathered the tempestuous "interregnum" period of the 1950s and had even been responsible for the resurrection of the superhero (via Barry Allen as the new Flash in Showcase #4, 1956), but it wasn't until Marvel introduced a new generation of superheroes (The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, et al.) that the Silver Age was shifted into high gear.

Outside of stylistic differences, Marvel's books differed from DC's in another major way: the heroes were flawed. Readers never saw Superman exercise poor judgment, and he certainly never engaged in heated disagreements with the other members of the Justice League. The "good guys" at DC never approached anything resembling moral ambiguity, never had to deal with the everyday struggles that real people faced, and the stories always resolved themselves neatly.

Not so in the pages of Marvel's comics.

From the very beginning, Marvel's characters bickered—even came to blows—with each other, tried to use their powers for their own selfish purposes, allowed their egos to get the best of them, even lamented the "gifts" they had been given. At the time, this was revolutionary. Also, some of the heroes, such as the Hulk and the Thing, were monsters. Both Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm desired to cure themselves; Banner's circumstances were worsened by the fact that his mind was lost within the id-like rage of the Hulk whenever he transformed, whereas Grimm's rocky form, while permanent, did not affect his brain.

With all of this taken into account, one of Marvel's biggest points of interest soon became superheroes in conflict with each other. The cover of Amazing Spider-Man #1 depicts Spidey battling the Fantastic Four. Daredevil fights Spidey and Captain America on the covers of #s 16 and 43, respectively, of his own comic. The Hulk battles the Thing—for the first of many times—on the cover of Fantastic Four #25. These are just a few examples; this sort of thing happened all the time, and the fans loved it.

The closest equivalent I can think of at DC was that time Superman raced the Flash.

One of the most memorable superhero battles of the early Bronze Age appears in Amazing Spider-Man #s 119 and 120 (1973). By this time, Spidey and the Hulk had become Marvel's two most popular characters, and though they had fought a few times before, it was really time for a confrontation so epic that two issues were required to contain it.

To tell this story, powerhouse artists John Romita and Gil Kane had to work together. Romita handled #119 by himself; Kane penciled #120, with Romita doing the inks. It's interesting to see the stylistic hallmarks of each artist throughout the story, and the mixture of the two in #120 is better than the sum of its parts, as the saying goes.

By this time, Stan Lee had relinquished the book to Gerry Conway. As the years had passed and Lee had taken on more administrative responsibilities, he had slowly surrendered his books to various writers (remember that at the beginning Lee was writing everything). Amazing Spider-Man was reportedly his favorite and therefore the last to be given up. Conway tried to retain the spirit of Lee's writing while forging ahead with new ideas, some of which were disastrous, most notably the startling events in the very next issue, but that's another story.

Not unlike the storyline in which Wolverine was first introduced, this battle between the Hulk and Spidey takes place in Canada. Peter Parker needs to go to Montreal to investigate the origin of a mysterious telegram received by his Aunt May. Finding himself short on funds (as usual), he is thrilled to catch a glimpse of a televised news report about the Hulk's wreaking havoc up there. He convinces Jameson to pay his way to our northern neighbor to snap some photos of the monster.

Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (the Hulk's arch-enemy, for those of you who might not know) and his forces are already there, intent on capturing him. Parker's name isn't on the list of approved members of the press, but he sneaks onto the truck anyway. Naturally, the vehicle is attacked by the Hulk, who just wants everyone to quit hounding him. Parker finds a spot to change into his costume and engages the Hulk in his typically jocular fashion. Catching the Jade Giant off balance, Spidey knocks him off a snow-capped precipice, but the monster soon forgets his assailant as the army begins firing on him.

The Hulk rips up a parcel of land (they don't call him "incredible" for nothing) and hurls it at the soldiers, but Spidey snags it in his webbing and sends it right back at the monster. He shatters it with a powerful fist but then chooses to flee, having become fed up with the whole affair.

A short distance away, the Hulk takes out his anger on a dam. Realizing that this could result in the flooding of the nearby village, Spidey attempts to find the pressure wheel so he can lower the water level. The Hulk spots him and attempts to smash him with an I-beam that he has torn free, but Spidey succeeds in reaching the wheel and averts the disaster. Still a ten-foot-tall engine of rage, the Hulk batters the dam until it collapses, and both he and the web-slinger plunge into the river.

Spidey narrowly escapes as the Hulk's mad underwater thrashing causes a tidal wave that effectively brings the army's efforts to a standstill. As the Jade Giant's powerful leap breaks the surface and he disappears into the countryside, Ross calls for a helicopter to take him back to Montreal, ordering his troops to follow the monster. Satisfied that he has enough photos, Spidey hitches a ride back to the city, intent on rendezvousing with the man who sent the aforementioned telegram and then returning to New York.

Back in his civilian attire, Parker climbs into a cab and heads toward his meeting. No sooner does the cab reach the bridge leading to the fairgrounds where Parker's contact waits for him than the Hulk, unnerved by the car's headlights, attacks. Thrown from the vehicle, Parker dons his costume again and lures the monster onto a cable car, which he, of course, destroys, and then onto the fairgrounds proper, where he wrecks a geodesic dome and tears a stone column from an exhibit as he tries to crush Spidey.

The Hulk finally manages to snag the web-slinger's arm and hurls him into a pile of rubble. Dazed, Spidey knows that his number may be up, but just then Ross and his forces appear. The Hulk, however, has had enough, and leaps away.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the battles between the Hulk and Spider-Man is that the web-head knows better than to engage directly in combat with the monster. He is fully aware that he is far outclassed in physical strength, so he uses his reflexes and his environment and taunts his foe instead, things that prove very effective.

In the context of this story, Spidey struggles with the idea of performing heroic deeds (i.e., stopping the Hulk) for their own sake when he has personal matters that demand his attention. He ultimately decides that if he is ever to become a successful superhero he has no choice but to put his own concerns aside, at least momentarily, for society at large. This is something that all heroes, super or not, have to deal with, and the fact that Spidey is an everyman character makes the issue relatable, even encouraging, to readers.

Marvel re-presented this story, albeit in a somewhat edited form (six pages were removed due to space limitations) in the pages of 1978's Amazing Spider-Man Annual #12 (with a cool new cover by John Byrne). You can find a copy of this book as a back issue relatively cheaply (ten bucks or so), but the story can also be found (unedited) in Essential Spider-Man (the black-and-white "phonebook" reprint series) volume six. The original issues are quite pricey, as you can probably imagine, but feel free to go that route if you have the desire and the disposable income.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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